LEAVESDEN, ENGLAND: I’m whizzing over the Thames, the wind in my face, so close that I can dip my hands in the water. Then suddenly, not of my own volition, I’m soaring heavenwards, only to rocket back down to earth moments later, dodging cars and buses on London’s busy streets. Oh, and did I mention, I’m riding a broom?
Boarding a bucking Nimbus 2000 in front of a special effects green screen is just one of the hands (or in this case, bottoms) on attractions at the “Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter” experience in Leavesden, 20 miles northwest of London.
Unlike the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida, the U.K. doesn’t feature theme park rides like roller coasters. Instead, Leavesden offers a true behind-the-scenes look at the Harry Potter movies, which were primarily shot on a soundstage next door. It embraces 170,000 square feet of space bursting with the actual sets, costumes, props and magical machines, including the original Hogwarts Express steam engine, parked alongside a recreated Platform 9 3/4.
The tour begins with a brief flick featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the film franchise (picture lots of birthday cakes and hugs), narrated by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. As the trio gathers on film to step through the massive doors of Hogwarts, beckoning audience members to follow, the silver screen suddenly lifts to reveal…those very doors. Cue gasps and squeals—and not just from the children.
With the help of volunteers from the audience, a “tour interactor,” as guides stationed around various exhibits are called, thrusts open those doors and ushers visitors into the soaring Great Hall. It’s a “wow”-worthy moment, striding across the York stone floor dusted by Dumbledore’s robes, examining the long wooden tables aged with chains and axes, and gazing at the actors’ costumes displayed beneath figures of winged dragons.
Our faces probably express the same wonderment as young Harry when he first trod on these flagstones.
“In fact,” says interactor Alex Bowman, “the moment you see in the film, when Harry arrives at Hogwarts and enters the Great Hall, that actually was the first time the children saw it. The director wanted to capture their reaction.”
It’s only the first of many little revelations imparted by the interactors and by videotaped commentary by cast and crew that make this self-guided tour so intriguing.
Stepping out of the Great Hall and into a vast hangar filled with a dozen or so more sets, I wind my way past the towering Hogwarts Gates to the “bedroom” where Harry and his friends slept. The wooden beds, draped with red velvet curtains, seem absurdly small, and indeed, the actors did outgrow them over the years.
“So the boys either curled up their legs, or they would shoot so you couldn’t see their legs sticking out from the end of the bed,” explains Leanne MacPhail, a young actress who says she has become a more avid fan of the films since she started working here as a tour interactor.
“Some people thought it might ruin the magic, when you see how it’s done,” she says. “But seeing the passion that went into it, all the small details, makes me even more passionate about it.”
Those details range from the threadbare rugs and sofas meant to look as though they had existed for centuries in the Gryffindor Common Room to the dimly-lit Potions Classroom. Here, in Professor Snape’s lair, each of the 500 dusty bottles lining the shelves are filled with a unique assortment of baked bones, leaves, herbs, and plastic animals purchased at a zoo gift shop and altered beyond recognition.
My favourite? “Bouncing Spider Juice.” (Bet you won’t find that at your local pharmacy).
The tour is meant to take three hours, yet fans may find themselves lingering much longer over the sets. There’s Hagrid’s humble hut, Professor Umbridge’s Pepto-pink office, and Dumbledore’s office, where you can spot the gleaming gold “memory cabinet” and silver Pensive.
One of my favorite displays, however, is the Weasley’s cozy kitchen with its hands-free “magic” iron, chef’s knife and knitting needles, all of which visitors can operate remotely by pointing a laser-like wand. Too bad these labour-saving devices aren’t sold in the gift shop; they would make perfect Mother’s Day gifts.
Several touch-screen versions of the Marauder’s Map also allow punters to take control, navigating the map by tapping areas of interest around Hogwarts, from the Whomping Willow to the Quidditch pitch.
Against Dumbledore’s explicit orders, you can even venture into the twilit Forbidden Forest, where spider webs weave a silvery tapestry between chunky trees. Here, you’ll encounter the majestic Buckbeak the Hippogriff, as well as the skittering figure of Aragog, every arachnophobe’s nightmare.
Imaginative modes of transportation, including Hagrid’s motor car, the Gringotts’ vault cart, and a couple of brooms attached to motorized rigs are showcased further on, past the imposing Chamber of Secrets Door. The most impressive ride–the Hogwart’s Express–belches steam from its berth alongside a painstakingly recreated Platform 9 3/4 sequestered in a 20,000-square-foot extension.
Walk through the 78-year-old locomotive, peeking into the private cabins where students seem to have carelessly abandoned their belongings. Then slump into a seat across the platform among the rows of train cabins, taking in the scenery. Dementors, the Weasley’s flying car, and Ron’s escapee chocolate frog play across the window screens in a continuous loop.
Don’t leave before you get your photo snapped while “pushing” a luggage trolley through the station’s brick wall.
Exiting the main exhibition hangars, I find myself outside amid a recreation of Privet Drive, the triple-decker Knight Bus, and the wooden Hogwarts Bridge. These set pieces stand alongside a food hall where you can sample a swig of Butterbeer before continuing the tour.
In the Creature Shop, one display features buttons you can press to bring a wriggling mandrake out of its pot or make a fetal Voldemort stretch and breathe. I marvel at the frighteningly life-like goblins’ heads on the shelves, the animatronic model of a Hippogriff that nods obligingly as I pass, and the terrifying spider Aragog, with its 18-foot leg span, which was hand-fitted with hemp, sisal and yak fur.
For me, though, the most “magical” experience is stepping into Diagon Alley. This crooked, cobble-stoned passageway is flanked by whimsical shops like Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Ollivanders (Makers of Fine Wands Since 383 B.C.), and Madam Malkin’s, advertising fang brushes, talon clippers and baby pygmy puffs. Each storefront is so detailed, I feel as though I’m strolling down an actual London street, albeit after a few too many pints of spiked Butterbeer.
The grand finale is an enormous two-story model of Hogwarts, set in its own cavernous room. Serenaded by the strains of a dramatic musical score, I descend a sloping ramp that wraps around the castle as the lighting cycles from day to night. When twilight descends, hundreds of twinkling lamps fill the spires.
“You see, when the lights go on, they’re just about to read the children their bedtime stories,” explains one father as he scoops up his young son, dressed in an Aragog spider costume.
For millions of Harry Potter fans, who span the decades and the world, this tour will bring J.K. Rowling’s own bewitching bedtime stories to life. Sweet dreams…if you can avoid Voldemort.
MEET MR. WEASLEY AND HARRY POTTER’S SPECIAL EFFECTS WIZARD
To see a video of my chat with Mark Williams, better known as Mr. Weasley, check out this link:
To watch my interview with special effects genius John Richardson, click on this link:
Tour: All tickets for “Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter” must be pre-booked by visiting www.wbstudiotour.co.uk
Brit Movie Tours features five Harry Potter-themed tours ranging from a three-hour minibus tour to excursions to filming sites around the English countryside. One tour includes a visit to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London as well as London film locations like the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron, the Ministry of Magic, the bridge destroyed by death eaters, and Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross. http://britmovietours.com/bookings/harry-potter-tours/